Friday, July 08, 2011

"It was a lark." -- Freeman Dyson, on the early Los Alamos community

On the new book shelf today is a very slim pamphlet, containing the transcript of the PBS production The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb (1981).  Transcribed and printed by PTV Publications, Kent, Ohio, this written record of the public broadcasting production by Jon Else gives a fascinating picture of gathering the best physicists and their students in the "boom town" of Los Alamos.  Under Oppenheimer's leadership, this group of brilliant thinkers, with "kind hearts and humanist feelings," went to work on a weapon of mass destruction.  The Day After Trinity explores how and why the atomic bomb was developed, in the context of relationships of the scientists working together under great stress.  "Their average age was 29, and their job was to construct a mechanism which would trigger, in a millionth of a second, a violet chain reaction.  They had two dance bands, a soda fountain, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, a radio station with no call letters, aa cyclotron, and 7,000 fire extinguishers," says the narrator.  Freeman Dyson, then a physicist with the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, remarked "The most striking contraction is the fact that this man [Oppenheimer], who was so unworldly, so unpolitical in his youth, such a great scholar, so fond of metaphysical poetry, should suddenly emerge as the great administrator who put Los Alamos together and produced the atomic bomb."

It is still very thought-provoking reading, 30 years after the making of the documentary.  As we approach the 66th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nakasaki, Oppenheimer's words remain relevant:  "I think the only hope for our future safety must lie in a collaboration, based on confidence and good faith, with the other peoples of the world."  [OBIS catalog record]

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